Virtual fans will be added to Fox Sports’ coverage of the 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) season when the action returns to the US broadcaster’s screens this Saturday.

Fox Sports will use Pixatope software, in conjunction with Silver Spoon Animation and SMT to present what it hopes will be a more dynamic offering to the viewing experience, with the ballparks remaining closed to actual fans for the foreseeable future due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whilst some sports coverage has included virtual crowds during the lockdown of stadia to the public – including Italy’s Serie A – the virtual fans on show for Fox Sports’ coverage tomorrow of the Milwaukee Brewers at the Chicago Cubs, the San Francisco Giants at the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York Yankees at the Washington Nationals will offer something different.

The ‘fans’ in the stands will be able to perform up to 500 actions, including a Mexican wave and high-fives following a home run. Their clothing will be tailored to reflect each team’s playing colours and will be consistent with the weather in real life.

“Pretty quick after this pandemic hit, we thought we could be in a position to produce games without crowds,” Fox Sports’ executive vice-president, Brad Zager, told the New York Post. “We were dead set on trying to make the broadcast with no crowd feel as authentic and organic as possible. We want to give people an escape.”

MLB’s revised 60-game 2020 regular-season schedule will conclude on September 27, with the 2020 NFL American football campaign set to kick-off on September 10.

There are suggestions that the virtual fans could be used for coverage of the NFL action. “The NFL has been partnering with us and knows where we are in this process, and we will continue to work with them as we get closer to NFL season in rolling it out there, if we do,” Zager added.

Meanwhile, with several MLB franchises having launched initiatives to have cardboard cut-outs of fans in the empty stands, the Los Angeles Dodgers have gone a step further by allowing pets to be represented at Dodger Stadium. The Pups at the Park scheme, presented by Lucy Pet Foods, will allow the cut-outs to be positioned in Loge sections 143 and 145 for a price of $149.

Image: Screengrab from Fox Sports promotional video (as above)